Editor's note: Sadly, if you haven't made it to the top of Half Dome this year, you'll more than likely have to wait some seven months before you can take a whack at this classic national park hike. That's because Yosemite rangers have taken down the climbing cables for the winter. But that doesn't mean you can't start thinking about setting your sights on Half Dome's summit for next summer. To get you thinking about such a possibility, Rick Deutsch, author of One Best Hike: Yosemite's Half Dome and who made his 23rd trip to the top just last weekend, shares some thoughts and tips.
Most avid hikers know Half Dome. In fact, as the signature landmark for Yosemite National Park, its image is recognized worldwide. It's even on the 2005 U.S. quarter. From mid-May to mid-October, visitors can attempt this extremely strenuous 16-mile hike. The main challenge is the nearly 1-mile vertical mile climb from the valley floor to the summit. Then there's the final 425 feet, aided by a 45-degree inclined cable banister.
The trail begins in the eastern part of the Yosemite Valley at Happy Isles. A mellow 20-minute walk on asphalt begins your day. You'll see baby strollers and high heels on this beginning warm-up leg. The often damp Mist Trail then takes you to the Vernal Fall overlook. This is a perfectly symmetrical 300-foot waterfall. A similar stretch leads up to Nevada Fall, a 600-foot photo op. By now the crowd thins out. A peaceful 1-mile walk though the flat Little Yosemite Valley leads to the switchbacks heading to the Half Dome rock itself.
Seven miles from the start you arrive at Sub Dome on the shoulder of Half Dome. This is an often-unmentioned challenge of 400 granite steps. Once you conquer that, you next face the "Big Kahuna" - the imposing cables. Many reconsider the task at hand and turn around. An early start of the day will keep you away from the crowds that build before noon. If you continue on (most do) you change from hiker to climber. It is hard, but the views are superb up top.
The trip back down the trail to your lodging will not be much faster than your ascent. You are on a good trail, but it is wilderness and you'll be navigating many uneven granite rocks and slippery gravel. Don't be tempted to run down- your knees will explode.
With goods boots, hiking poles and water treatment gear, this hike can be done by anyone who trains for it. I've seen kids from 10 to 80 on the trail; it's fun for all ages. Pack a flashlight in case you sprain an ankle and don't make it back before dark. Cell phones work up top if you need emergency help. Rangers don't patrol the trail and there is no one "in charge" at the cables. The trail is well-marked and very popular – just follow the guy in front of you!
The top is 8,842 feet high and is generally well below any concerns for altitude sickness. But do not attempt this when there is thunder or lightning in the area. Half Dome gets hit every month of the year.
Rick Deutsch lives in San Jose, California.. An avid adventure traveler, he has done the Half Dome Hike 23 times. You can learn more about his background, and hiking Half Dome, here.
* All text and photos © 2008 Rick Deutsch, Carpe Diem Experience